Sep 20, 2018

The Right to Pursue Happiness, Earn a Living, and Innovate

Adam Thierer Senior Research Fellow

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

That memorable line from America’s Declaration of Independence makes it clear that we are at liberty to pursue lives of our own choosing. Our path in this world is ours to make. It is not predestined by government.

It is time to think more expansively about the right to pursue happiness. Specifically, it is time we acknowledge that our freedom to pursue happiness is the basis of many other corresponding rights, including the right to innovate and the right to earn a living.

Our right to pursue happiness aligns with our corresponding rights to speak, learn, and move about the world. Our constitutional heritage secured these rights and made it clear that we possess them simply by nature of being human beings. So long as we do not bring harm to others, we are generally free to act as we wish. These rights also serve as the basis of more specific freedoms: the freedom to tinker and try, or to innovate more generally. 

Knowledge isn’t a mere collection of words that have existed since the dawn of time, and growth isn’t merely a matter of luck or destiny. Knowledge comes from acts of trial-and-error experimentation, and growth comes from innovation.

Repressing innovation has profound consequences. When critics decry a particular innovation or propose limiting entrepreneurial acts, they are challenging our freedom to know and learn more about the world and pursue a better future. By challenging our freedom to experiment with new and better ways of doing things, critics are essentially condemning us to the status quo.

Worse yet, denying people the freedom to innovate deprives society of the wisdom and prosperity that accompanies innovation, which is the foundation of human flourishing.

In sum, if you are not free to innovate, you are not free to pursue happiness.

So, let us resolve to clearly establish that the freedom to pursue happiness and the freedom to innovate are, in reality, the exact same right. Our freedom to try, to tinker, to learn, and to know are all just the same as our “freedom to innovate” and our freedom to pursue happiness however we see fit to pursue it. 

Fostering a social and political culture that protects entrepreneurialism, the freedom to innovate, and the right earn a living is a moral imperative because it has enormous consequences for the well-being of current and future generations. To the extent this freedom is denied, the burden of proof—and the consequences for this denial—lies with those critics who would wish it so.

20 Things to Read on the Importance of Innovation and Entrepreneurialism

  • W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (New York: Free Press, 2009).
  • Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen J. Ezell, Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).
  • Robert Bryce, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).
  • Joe Carlen, A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
  • Larry Downes, The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces That Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
  • Robert Friedel, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
  • Tim Harford, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017).
  • Calestous Juma, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Vinod Khosla, “We Need Large Innovations,” Medium, January 1, 2018.
  • Israel M. Kirzner & Frederic Sautet, “The Nature and Role of Entrepreneurship in Markets: Implications for Policy,” Mercatus Policy Series, Policy Primer, No. 4, (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, June 2006).
  • Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  • Joel Mokyr, Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  • Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).
  • Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
  • Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: Harper Collins, 2010).
  • Timothy Sandefur, The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2010).
  • Adam Thierer, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, 2nd ed. (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2016).
  • Mark Zachary Taylor, The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries are Better Than Others at Science and Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Andrew W. Torrance & Eric A. von Hippel “The Right to Innovate,” Michigan State Law Review, Issue #2 (2015).
  • Sander Wennekers & Roy Thurik, “Linking Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth,” Small Business Economics Vol. 13 (February 1999).

Photo credit: Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

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